Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
Quite possibly no other animal on the planet stirs up such strong emotions or can be as polarizing as the wolf.
To its most adamant supporters, it is the symbol of all that is right, natural, and pure in the world. To its detractors, it is a bloodthirsty killing machine – a symbol of all that is evil and wrong in the world.
The wolf is neither. It is a wolf. Canis lupus. A native predator that is just beginning to return to Oregon.
The polarizing nature of wolves was put on display two weeks ago with the first confirmed depredation of livestock in Oregon since wolves were extirpated from the state 63 years ago. For some this was proof positive of the latter view. The big bad wolf had finally struck. Now that they have gotten a taste for blood, you’d better watch out for your children and start writing an epitaph for the rural way of life.
It’s too bad this happened – both for the rancher (who is being fully compensated by Defenders of Wildlife) and for the wolves. It was human attitudes that led to the death of every last wolf in Oregon by 1946, and it is human attitudes that will determine whether they will be allowed to again regain their place as a keystone species across Oregon’s landscapes.
A single incident is not an excuse to again exterminate an entire species. However, it did happen, and will again.
Controversy always gets headlines, and when it comes to wolves, emotions tend to get the better of folks. So when 24 lambs were killed by wolves, old myths and exaggerations predictably reappeared as truth. A little context might be in order. Below are just some of the things that were said of wolves:
Wolves kill for fun:
Wolves are predators. Unlike humans, wolves kill only for survival. They can go long periods of time between meals and don’t have the luxury of killing “for fun” even if they wanted to. A wolf might not eat everything it kills in one sitting and may start by eating their favorite parts first. However, they’ll come back to finish what’s left (as evidenced by the young wolves returning the next night to the lamb carcasses left out for them in Eastern Oregon - left photo).
But they killed 24 lambs!
In many cases, when sheep are the prey, predators kill more than one or two. Unlike native prey, sheep tend to not run away and scatter from a predator. The lambs killed last week were penned up and had nowhere to go. A pair of hungry, young, inexperienced wolves did what came naturally to them. They secured as much food as they could.
Wolves are land piranhas – they’ll eat every last sheep and cow!
Yes, wolves will kill livestock. But let's not get carried away. Since they returned to our state in the late 90’s, wolves have killed 24 lambs. By comparison:
- In a single year in Oregon, 700 sheep and calves were killed by domestic dogs. 200 were killed by eagles.
- In the Western States where wolves have “recovered” (MT. ID, & WY), wolves represent less than 1% of livestock losses.
- In 2005, human thieves took 5 times as many livestock as wolves.
- In Minnesota, a state with nearly 500 times as many wolves as Oregon, they were responsible for just 0.65% of cattle losses. That number is 0.74% in neighboring Idaho.
- During just a couple of days in Montana last month, weather killed 1,759 calves and 501 sheep. All of last year, in Montana, wolves killed 77 calves and 111 sheep.
Our children are at risk!
Given the choice, a wolf would rather eat an elk than Little Red Riding Hood. A wolf has the tools to do it, but there is not a single case of a human getting killed by a healthy wild wolf in North America during the 20th century. Not one! By comparison, below is the number of American who met their end in different ways in a single year.
- 0 were killed by healthy wild wolves
- 16 killed by domestic dogs
- 92 stung by bees
- 352 drowned in their own bathtubs
- 406 fell from a ladder
- 4,000 drown
- 14,900 fell
- 43,200 died in car accidents
And my favorite…
“Wolves don’t belong in Northeast Oregon, they should be relocated to Portland and Eugene”
Believe it or not, variations on this quote were attributed to some pretty influential people around the state in the last few weeks. Wolves are native to Oregon. Unfortunately, the biggest impediment to wolves once again thriving in Oregon is human conflict. Big predators like wolves need big wild places for the stable prey base they provide, and for places to thrive free from conflict with humans. Our native predators should be able to survive in our state which is just one more reason we need to protect our roadless wildlands and wilderness.
The only way to deal with this problem is to kill the wolves
We tried that before. With only a handful of wolves left in the state, killing wolves is not an option. Once wolf populations are recovered, it may make sense to manage wolves as we do other native predators – which includes harassing, trapping, relocating, and sometimes killing “problem” animals. However good animal husbandry by ranchers in wolf country has been demonstrated to reduce livestock depredations significantly.
Wolves will destroy game herds
As they did across the planet, wolves in the West evolved with their prey. They managed to strike a balance for millions of years without our help and can continue to do so. The behavior of prey animals may change – they may be more wary, avoid open spaces, etc. – and be harder to hunt, but they won't disappear. Wolves are keystone species, and an important part of the dynamic balance of their ecosystems. Throughout the west, the health and vitality of ecosystems (and game animals) has demonstrably improved with the return of wolves. Sometimes in unexpected ways – but that’s for another blog post.
Ultimately, it is human tolerance that will determine if wolves regain their rightful place in the Oregon landscape, or if we again show that the only animal that kills for fun and wipes out entire species walks on two legs. Those who vilify or deify wolves may lead us to the same destination.
Yes, wolves kill livestock. So do humans, snow, eagles, disease, and domestic dogs. They don’t do it for fun or out of malice. They do it for the same reason we go to Burgerville when it would be better for us all if we went home and cooked up a veggie stir fry. No one is suggesting we eliminate domestic dogs, or snow, or eagles, or Burgerville for that matter – as well they shouldn’t.
We are the only species with the capacity to make logical, moral, and emotional decisions on whether to eliminate or allow the existence of other species. As the former wolf hunter Aldo Leopold once said
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Allowing a native predator to coexist with its prey, us, and our livestock seems to hit on all three. Exterminating and vilifying an entire species -- that's just wrong.